On 2 April, thousands of Dalits across the country took to the streets to protest the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, and declared a nationwide bandh. Through the day protestors faced aggression from the police and Hindutva goons, resulting in the deaths of ten Dalits. The next morning’s headlines, however, seemed to suggest that it was Dalits who had done the killing. “Nine killed as angry Dalits take to the streets, Madhya Pradesh most affected” declared the Indian Express. The Pioneer titled a story, “Dalit rage singes India; 8 killed.” Many were more concerned with the inconvenience caused by the bandh than the factors that led to it. By and large, the protest saw no support from outside the Dalit community. The media struggled to understand or even find out who organised the protest.
On 20 March, a Supreme Court bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Uday Umesh Lalit laid down “procedural safeguards” to prevent the misuse of the Act, which was legislated in 1989 to deal with hate crimes against Dalits and Adivasis. The judgment stipulated that “the arrest of a public servant can only be after approval of the appointing authority and of a non-public servant after approval by the SSP,” and mandated that a preliminary inquiry be made by a deputy superintendent of the police before an FIR is registered under the Atrocities Act. The judgment stated, “working of the Atrocities Act should not result in perpetuating casteism.”
Such dispensing of law, blind to social-justice concerns, immediately put under the spotlight the lack of diversity in the higher judiciary, an issue raised by KR Narayanan, the first Dalit president. “Two upper cast judges of the Supreme Court of India have turned the SC & ST Act from protecting SC/ST to protecting Brahmins,” the senior advocate Indira Jaising tweeted, “no surprises, the SC has no SC/ST judges at all.” (Justice Goel has been the general secretary of the All-India Adhiwakta Parishad, the lawyers’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Lalit’s father, UR Lalit, has also held the post). Out of the 24 sitting judges of the Supreme Court, eight are Brahmins. No judge belonging to a scheduled caste or tribe has been elevated to the Supreme Court in the last seven years. And there has been only one Dalit chief justice in history.
Mohan Gopal, an eminent jurist, pointed out in a public address that the SC/ST Act was the product of the Dalit movement and “is a literary expression of the suffering of Dalits of this country.” He added, “Like the Criminal Tribes Act that declares an entire tribe criminal, this judgment does something unprecedented in the judicial history of the world. It takes away the right to credibility of 300 million Dalits … and declared them an untrustworthy community. This is an atrocity in itself.” Gopal pointed out the absurdity of the judgment’s provision that a complainant must first face an inquiry.
The judgment contrasts starkly with the last amendment to the SC/ST Act, made in 2015, which was first introduced by the previous United Progressive Alliance government as an ordinance. It had listed many offences deemed common against Dalits: tonsuring of heads and moustaches; garlanding with footwear; denial of access to irrigation facilities or forest rights; coercion into disposing of or carrying human or animal carcasses, using or permitting manual scavenging; obstruction of filing nominations to contest elections; and removing a person’s garments, among others. It used the term “willful negligence” to define the behaviour of government employees at all levels who showed reluctance to act in caste-discrimination cases, starting with the registration of complaints. It also defined aspects of “dereliction of duty.” The latest amendment gives the power back to the same government officials to discriminate freely, reversing the progress made by the last amendment.
Even before the SC/ST Act was diluted, its implementation had been vexed. This was evident during the first big crisis the Modi government faced after coming to power: the suicide, in January 2016, of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University and the national outrage that followed. A case for abetment of Vemula’s suicide was filed under the SC/ST Act against the central ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani. To help them escape, the government used all its might in an attempt to prove that Vemula was not a Dalit. The government scrapped the first report by a deputy collector that had certified him a Dalit, and procured a second report showing him as a member of an Other Backward Class caste, which his long-estranged father belonged to. The fact that his mother was unquestionably Dalit was ignored.
Crimes against Dalits, which were supposed to be curtailed by the Act, have also been steadily on the rise. According to the website IndiaSpend, the crime rate against Dalits rose by 25 percent between 2006 and 2016. During this period, 422,799 crimes against Dalits and 81,332 crimes against Adivasis were reported. The number of cases pending police investigation has almost doubled simultaneously. These numbers, based on National Crime Research Bureau data, do not include Dalits who cannot muster enough courage to file cases for fear of retaliation. Despite all the data and various surveys that provide evidence of the enduring presence of untouchability, the majority of Indians remain apathetic to the Dalit fight for equality.
Though the BJP-led government, under immense pressure due to the protests, filed a review petition asking the Supreme Court to recall the amendment, the community is not willing to trust the government’s posturing. “The government tried to show it as the decision of Supreme Court. But Justice Jasti Chelameswar’s letter to the Chief Justice makes it clear that there has been Centre’s interference in the functioning of the court,” Manoj Rajeshwar, a 24-year-old member of the Bhim Army, a Dalit-rights organisation, told me, referring to the 21 March letter by the second most senior judge of the court. The Dalit community and its intellectuals believe that the additional solicitor general did not provide all the necessary facts in the case during the hearing.
The bandh and the intensity of anger caught the government and media by surprise. The origins of the call for the bandh are still unknown. “There is a new class of educated Dalits. But there are no jobs for them,” Dharmendra Kumar Jatav, an activist based in Jaipur, told me. “The media owned and run by upper-caste people never supported us. But now the youth have been coming together on social media platforms over Dalit issues from across the country such as the suicide of Rohit Vemula, the flogging in Una, the arrest of Bhim Army’s Chandrasekhar and Bhima Koregaon clashes. It was building up. A consensus is forming among Dalits of various states. And legislation is the work of Parliament not the Supreme Court. The cup of woes was overflowing, and the dilution of the Atrocities Act brought Dalits on to the streets.”
Madhya Pradesh, where seven protestors died, surpassed Uttar Pradesh—which has a long history of Dalit politics—in the intensity of its protest. Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat, Bihar, Maharashtra also saw a lot of action. “Many unfortunate incidents had happened for the past four years but the protests largely remained localised,” Sushil Gautam, the president of the Democratic Students Front, in Meerut told me. “It was a tough hand-to-mouth existence but still we didn’t rise in protest. With the dilution of the SC/ST Act, it felt like everything was going to be finished for us. This was a trial, the BJP wanted to test the waters and next step was to end reservations. Dalits felt the earth move under them. Our future generations shouldn’t become slaves again, they shouldn’t say that we didn’t do anything to stop this.”
Gautam went on the run after the bandh because the police was arresting activists under various kinds of cases. “We have been slapped with a hundred cases,” he told me. “We have not murdered anyone. Our fight is with the government. Our fight is to stop the establishing of varna vyavastha”—caste hierarchy—“by the government.”
The violence during the bandh was blamed on the protestors despite ample evidence proving otherwise. In Muzaffarnagar, the police said that “anti-social elements” got mixed up with the crowd and indulged in violence. “For the first time, Dalits faced resistance and bullets on that day,” the Dalit BJP MP Udit Raj said in an interview to the National Herald. “Dalits do not oppose when others hit the street. But this time when Dalits hit the street, the upper castes opened fire and put up a resistance. The most brazen attacks were carried out in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. It has now been established that Dalits there were killed by bullets fired by dominant-caste men, not the police. Dalits are still being tortured and harassed there. I do not support violence of any kind. But Dalits are being implicated in false cases everywhere.” Other Dalit MPs of the BJP also voiced concerns about the party’s approach to caste issues, notwithstanding its shrill pro-Ambedkar rhetoric.
The BJP has 40 Dalit MPs. It won more than 50 percent of the seats reserved for Dalits in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the highest total of any party. But as Udit Raj explained in the interview, it is “a myth that just because a political party has more Dalit MPs, the party necessarily enjoys the support of Dalits.” He said that in no constituency do Dalit votes exceed 20 or 25 percent of the voters. “Nobody gets elected even from reserved seats with votes from Dalits alone. Indeed the victory from reserved seats is engineered by other forces … Dalits actually win with votes from supporters of essentially anti-Dalit parties.” The BJP, aware of this reality, has found its relationship with Dalits to be a tightrope walk. The party has tried to keep the community happy with symbolic moves such as making Ramnath Kovind the president. Any gains it might have made can be washed away by the next blunder, which is never far away.
The party’s parent organisation, the RSS, has also been facing Dalit ire recently. In late February, the RSS organised a meet called Rashtroday Samagam, or National Awakening. The sarsanghchalak, or head, of the RSS Mohan Bhagwat was the chief guest. It was going to be the largest gathering of the RSS. Just before the event, big hoardings came up all over Meerut. “Just as Vashishtha, a Brahmin; Krishna, a Kshatriya; Harsh, a Vaishya and Tukaram, a Shudra have increased the prestige and status of Hinduism, untouchables like Valmiki, Chokhamela and Ravidas have also done the same,” read a line on a hoarding that infuriated Dalits, including the traditional voters of the BJP, the Valmikis. They tore down the hoardings and the RSS rushed to explain that the line was spoken by Ambedkar himself. But the quote was not only a loose translation from a biography of Ambedkar, it had been taken out of context. “The Sangh does not have any plans for the development of Dalits,” The Telegraph quoted Kailash Chandol, a Dalit leader, saying after the incident. “They don’t think about our development or the eradication of untouchability. That is why they keep reminding us about the caste of our saints. They have contempt for us.”
Many believe that the BJP would not be able to hold on to the votes of the oppressed castes for long. “The BJP and RSS always want samrasta”—harmony—“in the society, but not samaanta”—equality, Gautam told me. “Samrasta represents varna vyavastha, which means they want status quo.” The OBCs of the cow belt, who have been leaning towards the BJP since the Ramjanmabhoomi movement of the 1990s, are also concerned that this government might scrap reservations. Bhagwat’s demand for a review of reservations just before the Bihar election in 2015 gave the opposition an advantage. “The BSP-SP alliance in UP is not an alliance between parties but an alliance between Dalits, OBCs and minorities,” Gautam told me. He also points towards a nascent alliance between the Muslims and Dalits. “We have a Dalit mayor in Meerut and a Muslim mayor from the BSP in Aligarh and lost the Saharanpur seat by 200 votes,” Gautam said, referring to UP’s constituencies that have sizable Muslim populations.
The dominant castes, emboldened by the BJP regime, have been attacking Dalits during and after protests and marches everywhere. The administration rarely takes action against them. In Maharashtra, even after an FIR was lodged against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote—both of whom have intimate links to the RSS—for the clashes during the Bhima Koregaon march, they were not arrested. Modi visited Bhide’s house and touched his feet in 2014. After the April bandh, Dalit bastis were attacked and Dalits in Rajasthan’s Hindaun city have threatened to embrace Islam. Rohith Vemula’s family has already embraced Buddhism, as did the victims of Una and 180 Dalit families from three villages in Uttar Pradesh where Thakurs attacked Dalits.
The RSS dream of Hindu consolidation always runs into trouble with Dalits. In 1981, when more than a thousand Dalits converted to Islam in protest in Meenakshipuram, a small village in Tamil Nadu, the RSS panicked and activated the dormant Vishwa Hindu Parishad to stop conversions, especially of Dalits. The VHP also led the campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya later. On 9 November 1989, the VHP chose Kameshwar Chaupal, a 25-year-old Dalit man from Bihar, to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple. However, the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh neutralised the gains from the VHP’s efforts.
Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras, the third sarsanghchalak of the RSS, actively tried to cultivate the OBCs and Dalits in the early 1970s, and started the Samajik Samrasta Manch in 1983 to “harmonise the Phule-Ambedkar thought with the Hindutva philosophy.” The birth centenary year of MS Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak and possibly the most revered RSS ideologue and champion of Manusmriti—the ancient text that institutionalised the caste system—was ironically celebrated as Samrasta Varsh by the RSS in 2006. Mulchand Rana, a 64-year-old Dalit, became vice president of the Gujarat wing of the Manch that year. After joining at the age of 17 and working for 48 years with the RSS, he resigned in February this year, disillusioned by the organisation’s attitude towards caste.
“The BJP government has been invoking Hinduism and stoking Hindutva feelings,” Rana told me. “The upper-caste Hindus started thinking like, ‘I am Thakur, I am Patel and the SCs are inferior to us.’ The feeling of being a Gujarati first has disappeared. Till 2000, nothing adversarial had happened, but the gap widened afterwards because of the government invocation of Hindutva. After 2010, it has risen to alarming levels.” When I asked him if Modi, as an OBC, had not taken adequate measures, he said, “In 2008, I spoke to Modi, one to one, when he was the CM of Gujarat. I told him that the situation is bad and the picture is different from what he is being given. He said, ‘I can’t think of only SC/STs but everybody.’ He is by caste an OBC, but has never lived the life of an OBC, but as an upper caste. The SC/STs of the state never looked at him as an OBC.” Rana said the gap between Dalits and other Hindus has been increasing and the RSS is turning a blind eye to it. “I cautioned the RSS and the BJP a lot for over the past two years,” he told me. “For three years, I had witnessed atrocities in 26 villages. I have taken the responsible RSS officers along with me on these visits to the villages to show them. There was no response or improvement in the situation.”
The gains made by the BJP among Dalit vote were crucial in securing its massive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. As the fundamental incompatibility of the party’s ideology with Dalit interests comes to light, it seems the two will not be travelling in the same boat for long.
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.